Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  2. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  3. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close
  4. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014
By
updated 7/5/2011 6:14:36 PM ET 2011-07-05T22:14:36

The space shuttle was sold to America as cheap, safe and reliable. It was none of those.

It cost $196 billion over 40 years, ended the lives of 14 astronauts and managed to make less than half the flights promised.

Yet despite all that, there were some big achievements that weren't promised: major scientific advances, stunning photos of the cosmos, a high-flying vehicle of diplomacy that helped bring Cold War enemies closer, and something to brag about.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who oversaw the early flights, said the shuttle program "authored a truly inspiring chapter in the history of human exploration."

Story: Shuttle program cost more than bailout, less than war

NASA's first space shuttle flight was in April 1981. The 135th and final launch is set for Friday, although storms could cause a delay. Once Atlantis lands at the end of a 12-day mission, it and the other two remaining shuttles are officially museum pieces — more expensive than any paintings.

America has done far more for far less. The total price tag for the program was more than twice the $90 billion NASA originally calculated.

America spent more on the space shuttle than the combined cost of soaring to the moon, creating the atom bomb, and digging the Panama Canal, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using figures from NASA and the Smithsonian Institution and adjusting for inflation.

'Impossibly high' bar
Even its most ardent supporters concede that the shuttle program never lived up to its initial promise. The selling point when it was conceived four decades ago was that with weekly launches, getting into space would be relatively inexpensive and safe. That wasn't the case.

"But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it," said former astronaut Duane Carey, who flew in 2002. "What matters is that we strived mightily to do so — and we did strive mightily. The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure."

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Of the five shuttles built, two were lost in fiery tragedies. The most shuttle flights taken in one year was nine — far from the promised 50.

The program also managed to make blasting into space seem everyday dull by going to the same place over and over again. Shuttles circled the planet 20,830 times, but went nowhere really new.

The shuttle's epitaph is "we tried," said Hans Mark, a former deputy NASA administrator who oversaw most of the first dozen launches.

Six years ago, then-NASA chief Michael Griffin even called the shuttle program a mistake.

But as a mistake it is one that paid off in wildly unexpected ways that weren't about money and reliability.

"The discoveries it enabled, the international cooperation it fostered and the knowledge it gained — often at great human cost — has also contributed in countless, important ways to humanity and our common progress," President George H.W. Bush wrote The Associated Press in an email. Bush oversaw the program's early days as vice president, a job that has by tradition supervised NASA.

From Hubble photos to 'Star Trek' diplomacy
There are the magnificent photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, which helped pinpoint the age of the universe and demonstrated the existence of mysterious dark energy; the ongoing lab work on the International Space Station; a multitude of satellites for everything from spying to climate change; and spacecraft that explore the solar system. All owe their existence to the space shuttle.

The Hubble was not just launched from the shuttle — it was repaired and upgraded five times by shuttle astronauts. They also captured and fixed satellites in orbit.

Earlier this year, shuttle astronauts installed a $2 billion particle physics experiment on the space station that may find evidence of dark matter and better explain aspects of how the universe was formed. Add the intangibles of near continuous American presence in space over three decades and a high-flying venue for both international diplomacy and school science lessons.

Like a real-life version of the television show "Star Trek," the shuttle was a United Nations in space, carrying representatives of 16 other countries. The U.S. and Russia became close partners in space and Russian rocket scientists after the breakup of the Soviet Union found new employment. NASA's current boss said all that is not something that should be ignored. The shuttle also diversified space to make it seem more like Earth, sending the first American woman, the first African-American and teachers, lawmakers and even a former migrant farmworker into orbit.

"The space shuttle program reaffirmed, once again, American dominance in space and laid the foundation for the United States to continue its long-standing leadership beyond our home planet," Charles Bolden, NASA's administrator and a former shuttle commander, wrote in an email. "The shuttle program evolved over its lifetime and gave us many firsts and many proud national moments, along with painful lessons."

Spectacular successes and failures
University of Colorado science policy professor Roger Pielke Jr., who studies shuttle costs and policies, said there are probably other ways the country could have spent several billion dollars a year on a human space program and gotten more.

Launching like a rocket and landing like an airplane, the shuttle was the ultimate hybrid. It acts both as a space taxi, carrying astronauts, and has the muscle of a long-distance trucker, hauling heavy machinery. That versatility translated into higher costs.

When spaceships carry people, extra safety requirements add hefty expenses. Rockets that haul big pieces of equipment — like station segments or a giant telescope — require more power and fuel, which means more cost. The shuttle has both of those problems that escalate the price.

When the shuttle succeeded, it did so in a spectacular way. But its failures were also large and tragic.

Seven astronauts perished when Challenger exploded about a minute after launch in 1986 and seven more died when Columbia burned up as it returned to Earth in 2003. One out of every 67 flights ended in death — a fatality rate that would make the most ardent daredevil cringe.

Based on deaths per million miles traveled, the space shuttle is 138 times riskier than a passenger jet.

Former astronaut and past NASA associate administrator Scott Horowitz said, "While the shuttle is the most magnificent engineering feat, its complexity and the naive belief that it would be as safe as an airliner was its Achilles heel."

Compromise from start to finish
One problem is that the shuttle was a compromise from start to finish, said Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University and author of several books on the space agency. The shuttle had to satisfy both NASA and the Department of Defense, which dictated the exact shape of its wings and the size of its payload bay, said Roger Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

The concept behind it was based on a three-step space plan, ultimately ending on Mars, said George Mueller, the former top official who is credited as the father of the space shuttle program. To get to Mars, NASA needed a space station circling Earth as a jumping-off point. To get to the space station, NASA wanted a completely reusable space shuttle.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon gave NASA only the shuttle. It had no place to go. The space station wasn't built until 1998.

Worst of all, Mueller said, was that the plan to make every part of the shuttle fully reusable was dropped. Budget cuts ordered by the Nixon White House meant that the fuel tank would be jettisoned with each flight and the boosters would fall into the ocean after launch and have to be retrieved and refurbished extensively.

Those changes made to save upfront money, while they sound small, meant adding incredible expense to every flight, Mueller said in an interview.

A historical anomaly?
The shuttle will likely go down in history as an anomaly of America's space program. The spacecraft before it were disposable capsules, like Apollo. And the designs for machines of the near future are also for the most part disposable capsules. That suggests that the 30 years of reusable shuttles that landed like airplanes were a diversion from the natural evolution of rocketry, said McCurdy.

It may be an anomaly, but astronauts call it an engineering marvel in both versatility and complexity. John Glenn, who flew in a Mercury capsule as well as the shuttle, called it "the perfect vehicle for its time."

He said like any pilot he'd prefer to fly the shuttle and called it a much smoother ride. But he said he understands why the future looks more like his Mercury capsules.

"As far as expense, simplification and cutting costs, the capsule is by far cheaper," the 89-year-old former senator said in a telephone interview from his Columbus, Ohio, office on Friday.

"The shuttle is an amazing piece of machinery," astronaut Stan Love said. "It blows away anything that can fly now or in the next 30 years."

However, when it comes to fulfilling the promise made four decades ago, Love retells a joke heard often around NASA: The space shuttle was supposed to be cheap, safe and turn spaceflight into something so routine it would be boring. One out of three ain't bad.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Video: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

  1. Closed captioning of: It's the final countdown for US shuttle program

    >>> this week, marks the beginning of the end of an era. the final countdown for america 's space shuttle program . the shuttle "atlantis" is scheduled to lift off on friday with a crew of four on a resupply mission to the international space station . tonight, nbc's tom costello looks back at three decades of stunning achievement and tragic setbacks.

    >> reporter: ask anyone old enough to remember april 12th , 1981 , and chances are, they do.

    >> the shuttle has cleared the tower.

    >> reporter: columbia rocketed to the space with its crew of two. settle i think we've got something that's really going to mean something to the crew and the world.

    >> reporter: after two days of orbit it landed safely in the california desert. "atlantis's" crew of four is preparing for the final countdown .

    >> we want to make sure that the thousands and thousands of people that put their hands on the space shuttle are honored by this mission and the legacy of the space shuttle .

    >> reporter: for three decades, the shuttle program has brought incredible triumph. the launch of the hubble telescope , john glen 's return to space, the construction of the international space station , and the hubble repair mission. but also, tragedy. the loss of "challenger" and columbia. and lingering questions about whether spending 14 years in low- earth orbit has been worth the financial and scientific investment.

    >> it's been remarkable in what it's been able to accomplish. it's been stunning in what we've been able to learn from it.

    >> reporter: with the launch of the shuttle program , tens of thousands of workers across the country are losing their jobs. many in florida. until commercial rockets are ready, american will rely on the russian space program to carry astronauts into space. but the head of nasa insists america is not giving up its leadership.

    >> some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. and i'm not about to let human space flight go away on my watch.

    >> reporter: meanwhile, the burden of the final mission falls on commander chris ferguson .

    >> i hope that i paint nasa in the finest light, that we pull off the cleanest mission that is possible. because we want to finish on the strongest note.

    >> reporter: a strong close as america turns the page in space exploration . tom costello, nbc news, washington.

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